I’ve had some interesting back-and-forth with Yvonne Klein over the past 24 hours. I posted parts of her recent on-line review of The Beggar’s Opera yesterday. It’s the first really negative review that TBO has received, but I think what bothered me the most about it was the following:
“Turning to taxi-drivers to convey a sense of how things are is a standard journalist’s dodge when time is too short for real research, but it has its problems in a novel.”
“…Havana is seen to seethe with prostitutes, beggars, and corruption at every level. To what degree this is in fact the case is unclear – the sole claim to direct knowledge of the country that Peggy Blair announces is that she and her daughter spent the Christmas holidays there six years ago.” (emphasis added)
The clear implication is that I didn’t do any “real” research into conditions in Cuba.
Now I know you’re not supposed to engage with reviewers who negatively review your work, but I emailed Ms. Klein to ask if she would be so kind as to include a reference to the fact that the book was shortlisted for the 2010 Debut Dagger. She had included this information in other reviews, eg. her review of D.J. McIntosh’s Witch of Babylon.
When she did, I thanked her. I also pointed out that I have an LLD, which is a doctorate in law. (Yes, it’s Dr. Blair, although I try to keep that close, because if people think you’re a doctor, they start asking you for medical advice.) In my case, my doctorate is in legal history, which requires combining historical, anthropological, and sociological research with law.
In 1999, my LLM thesis received the Prize of Excellence from the Association of Quebec Law Professors for the quality of my research. In fact, I taught a course in Legal Research to graduate law students at the University of Ottawa in 2001-2002.
Of course I researched conditions in Cuba.
Ms. Klein then responded that she wasn’t questioning my portrayal of the conditions in Cuba but the way I’d presented them. She added that the only information she had about me was from the PR package that came with the book, although she had looked me up and couldn’t find anything else.
Now I don’t know where Ms. Klein looked, but there is a Wikipedia entry that comes up as soon as you Google me. It actually outlines my background with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I’m also listed in The Canadian Who’s Who (a fact which is mentioned on the jacket cover for TBO). That publication details all my degrees and peer-reviewed articles (all 28 of them) as well as my teaching experience in matters related to research.
Now Ms. Klein seems very nice. I think she was trying to be helpful in providing feedback to a debut author, and I don’t disagree with her review generally. But I didn’t appreciate her comments about my research, because I thought they were unfair, particularly coming from a reviewer who had been an academic herself.
I also disagree with her conclusion that the book could have benefitted from better editing.
I had great editors: agent Peter Robinson (UK), Adrienne Kerr (Penguin) and Alex Schultz (formerly of HarperCollins). But even the best editor in the world can’t persuade a stubborn author to make changes she doesn’t want to make. Any errors or flaws that remain in that novel have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with me.
Update: Interesting question posed by a colleague at work. She is a visual artist and asked, “what difference does it make whether you researched Cuba or not?” As far as she is concerned, one need not do any research at all to create something that is deeply imagined — it is not, as she points out, an academic thesis. What do you think?